The start of the new season is just a few days away. And it will be an explosive start with two Clasico’s awaiting us, as if we already didn’t have enough. But both teams have earned this right and will again go head to head. After a very successful season, FC Barcelona enters this season as favorites in all the competitions it enters. After three great seasons that has put Barca up there with the best in the entire history, there is a question that needs an answer – Can they improve?
Barca has changed the common man’s perception of football. They have entertained people with goals and creativity. They are ruthless. They are extremely predictable on paper yet totally unpredictable on the field. There has been many successful teams in the history in terms of trophies, but very few that can holds its hand up and say we have revolutionized and redefined the style of the game – Barca has joined that elite group.
The players have returned from vacation. With longer rest for South-American players, the preseason has slowly began and the teams is warming up to the challenges ahead. The challenge ahead is enormous. The determination to beat the Catalans, is more than ever. With teams determined to end this dominance, Guardiola knows that his team cannot be predictable every single time. He knows more than anyone that there should be variation. His team simply cannot continue to just tiki-taka their way to victory in every match. The opponents are more prepared than ever to tackle this as style, though still teams find it difficult to stop them.
What Changes Can Be Expected?
Before jumping to the point saying, “Barca doesn’t have a plan B”, it should be noted that Barca’s plan A is almost unplayable on full flow. And Guardiola believes in having a stronger plan A rather than having a weaker plan A to fall onto a plan B, when things go wrong. The new signing also shows the same thing. They have ended up signing Sanchez, who is even shorter than Messi.
From The Bench
Defense: Adriano, Fontas, Mascherano, Maxwell
Midfield: Mascherano, Thiago, Keita, Afellay
Forward: Alexis, Afellay
Apart from this, Barca has its B team playing in the second division with loads of young talents, waiting to be picked. Though they might not be given a prominent role as of now, nevertheless, there are a few eye catching talents – the stars of tomorrow. Barca may end up signing one or more players before the transfer window ends, but the current squad is good enough to push the limits.
Barcelona is a very unconventional side, when it comes to attack. With their domination of possession, they rarely spend time within their own half. They mostly look to walk the ball into the net, rarely taking expressive shots from outside the box. Their game is mostly based on constant movement and intrinsic patterns of play with rapid exchange of passes with one or two touches. With such a game, they usually miss out on one important area when it comes to attack, a quick counter attack.
It is a common sight when you see a counter attack situation at the hands of Barca with Xavi or Iniesta holding the ball deep in their own half with the opponents on a rare occasions having committed more men forwards. The most obvious strategy would be to play a long pass behind the defense that has advanced or to create a one-on-one situation with a pass to the most advanced player. But Barca are a little slow in making that rapid transition to use the space behind the defense. To put it simply, they rarely break quickly. One reason is that Barca doesn’t usually have a target man to look up for such a pass. Messi, who is a false nine, rarely plays off defender’s shoulders. With Pedro and Villa tracking back and pressing, the transition is not rapid since there is not much to aim at, in the front with a long ball.
David Villa is a player, who is tailor made to play such kind of a game. He’s got pace to get behind the defense. But last season David Villa was the player with most number of offsides to his name. He constantly made runs behind the defense quickly, as soon as Barca had the ball, only to check his run seeing Xavi or Iniesta had passed the ball just 5 yards or caught offside as the midfielders threaded the pass a little too late for him. This showed that he didn’t completely understand the way Barca play. But he settled down and his offside count came down as the season progressed. This season with Sanchez coming in, the team might look to be a little more quick to break to catch opponents by the scruff of their neck. This is a subtle change, which might come handy, especially when opponent pushes up against Barca.
The Extravagant Shots
With an ever increasing emphasis on walking the ball into the net, teams pack the midfield and try not to give space. Teams almost take for granted that Barca players will not try a 30-yard shot. This change was demonstrated in the 2011 Champions League final against Manchester United. Manchester United were caught out on numerous occasions, as they allowed space and time for Xavi, Iniesta and Villa to shoot from outside. One such instance lead to the second goal by Messi. Guardiola acknowledged later that it was a deliberate attempt to take more shots from outside the box to surprise the opponents game plan. With Villa, Messi, Thiago, Alexis, Iniesta and Xavi, all capable of shooting from a distance, a little more of such shots might just come in handy.
A Little More Individual Flair
With Messi in this team, this may look pointless. But Villa and Pedro are not players with too much individual trickery up their bags. Sure, both can do a lot with the ball, but if Messi and Iniesta are heavily marked, the individual trickery vanishes in thin air. With Alexis coming in and Thiago now promoted, the areas of trickery has now expanded. Alexis is brilliant in one-on-one situation and Thiago has the natural Brazilian flair to his game. This might give the opponent a little more to think about when trying to crowd out Messi.
Season preview: A move with 50+ passes and a quick pressing to get back the ball.
Heading has never been a strong point for this Barca side. Pique, Abidal, Puyol, Busquets and Keita do offer that aerial threat, but it is never a regularly used arsenal for them. Instead, they use corners, as a way to keep possession to start another move. Lately there has been some innovative moves tried through set pieces that has either resulted in goal or has been close to a goal. And such number of moves has been increasing in frequency. This suggests that Pep wants to keep his opponents guessing.
Even More Possession?
“All this possession counts for nothing if they don’t convert it into a goal,” is a famous quote used by commentators and critics when referring to Barca’s style, mostly used to undermine their possession game, not willing to acknowledge the importance of it. But Guardiola will be looking to push the possession stats much further. Though its obvious that Barca use the ball to defend and to even take a bit of rest, it is a kind of monopoly that takes the opportunity out of opponents. Barca hasn’t made any signing in defense where they are perceived to be week. Right now the club has Alves, Adriano, Puyol, Pique, Abidal, Mascherano, Fontas and Maxwell as defensive options, which is not bad, considering that they have a top class starting eleven. Alves, Pique, Puyol and Abidal offer a solid platform, but a reshuffle can take time to settle. This makes the possession even more important for them.
All these isn’t going to change the basics. Guardiola will never sacrifice his core philosophy of how he believes the game should be played. He has reiterated the belief in the system that has given an identity for this club. The essence of the game will remain the same. Barcelona will always look to impose their game on the opponent and control the game. The same sequence of so called boring possession (especially for the oppositions), with countless sideways passes will continue. The opponents will continue to chase shadows for long periods in a game. Of course everything is not so predictable. Any team can have a bad patch, injuries can sabotage gameplans.
Guardiola is a master tactician, who has learnt from the best. He is aware of the challenges that lies ahead of him and would be ready to take it head-on. He promised a “Wild Ride” for the Barca fans, when he assumed the coaching office. He has delivered more than what is expected of him. His biggest challenge, however, will be to keep his players motivated, which would eventually make be the difference. TheHardTackle, along with the rest of the football fraternity, plans to wait and watch as to what Pep takes out of the hat this time around. Keep guessing till then!